It was an odd feeling, watching Mike D’Antoni return to his old stomping ground, sitting on the bench for the first time in his new role as an assistant coach for the hapless 76ers. He had returned to Phoenix as a visitor before, during his forgettable tenures with the Knicks and Lakers, but this was different.
It was different because, had D’Antoni waited a bit longer to give his old buddy Jerry Colangelo the thumbs up on the idea of easing his way back into coaching in a mostly pressure-less position alongside Brett Brown, perhaps he would have seen an ad for his old job in the coaching classifieds.
Then again, after last night, D’Antoni’s seat on the Philly bench probably feels pretty cozy.
Just when it seemed like it could not get any worse for the Phoenix Suns this season, they lose at home in rather convincing fashion to a team that now boasts a 2-30 record. Suns’ star Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury early in the second quarter, but the Suns were already down 12 by the time that happened, leaving them fresh out of any reasonable excuses, as if there is such a thing when you lose to a team whose win percentage resembles the price of discounted items at a dollar store.
Without question, a large share of the blame for Phoenix’s underwhelming 12-20 start falls on head coach Jeff Hornacek, whom the Suns decided not to extend beyond the final year of his contract (this season).
There is a terrifying senselessness to the way the Suns play, an underlying feeling that shouldn’t fit with a team believed to be on the rise in the Western Conference. There are some admirable derivatives, to be sure, like their commitment to a pace-and-space offense and a roster composed of players who, at least hypothetically, fit the system perfectly. But this team is so careless, so reckless and so uninspired, and Hornacek has done a poor job of finding the right lineup combinations to maximize his team’s performance on both ends of the court (Phoenix ranks 20th in offensive and defensive efficiency). Worst of all, the Suns seem to wilt in tense situations, and they play without passion.
Hornacek has not had an easy go of things during his time in charge of the Suns. The franchise’s identity has shifted time and time again. Supposed front office wonderkid Ryan McDonough, who was a Danny Ainge pupil in Boston before taking the Suns’ job in 2013, has failed to help Hornacek develop a stable and cohesive locker room.
Since Hornacek was hired in 2013, the Suns have tried out three different iterations of the two-point guard setup. It started with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in 2013-14, evolved to Dragic and Bledsoe with Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench in 2014-15 and turned into just Bledsoe and Brandon Knight after a pair of deadline day deals last season that sent Dragic to Miami and Thomas to Boston.
Considering the modest-to-nonexistent hauls Phoenix got for Dragic and Thomas, the fact that it shipped the Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick, perhaps the most valuable asset the team had behind Bledsoe, for Knight put the team all-in with its latest backcourt duo.
Although the Suns have struggled this season, the Bledsoe/Knight experiment has not been a disaster. Both players have performed better with each other on the court and they are each having career years. Bledsoe and Knight are both averaging a career-high 20 points per game; the Thunder and Blazers are the only other two teams with two players to accomplish such a feat. Bledsoe is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range, which would be the best mark of his career when factoring in volume, and Knight is shooting well enough from deep for the Suns to rank 2nd in basketball behind the Warriors in 3-point accuracy.
So why are the Suns struggling if their latest point guard pair seems to be working out?
It didn’t help that the Suns attached themselves to the most volatile set of twins in the NBA in recent years. It is almost as if Markieff Morris is afraid of the monsters in his closet and only felt save when brother was around. While Marcus has done quite well acclimating to life in Detroit, Markieff has spent most of this season sulking, playing poorly and, most recently, throwing towels at his head coach.
Morris is a player who seemed to have the perfect skillset to operate as a power forward in the Suns’ spread offense. He can space the floor around central pick-and-rolls and he was the team’s best one-on-one shot creator. If opponents went small to match the Suns pace-and-space style, Morris was an effective counter thanks to his solid postup game; he can blow by bigger defenders and punisher smaller ones. He should be thriving as the secondary scorer for the Suns once Bledsoe and Knight have probed the defense, much in the way his brother has done in Detroit when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls yield nothing.
It should be noted that Morris had good reason to be upset with Phoenix’s management, not necessarily because the team traded his brother, but because it traded his brother in attempt to open up cap space for a player who would replace him in the starting lineup. I actually think moving to a sixth man role wouldn’t have been the worst idea for Morris, but he clearly intended to remain the starter and the Suns were caught in an awkward position once Marcus was gone and their prized free agent was looking at real estate in San Antonio.
Still though, Morris is a very talented player who has sabotaged his trade value with his trivial behavior this season. Now the Suns are left with very few ways remedy the situation, including and likely limited to: selling Morris for pennies on the dollar and/or firing Hornacek.
Things looked so bright for the Suns during the offseason when they were a surprise entrant in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes. Even though the Spurs ended up signing Aldridge, the fact that Phoenix was the No. 2 option was a big deal for a Suns franchise that had been searching for a star. And although the Suns did not sign Aldridge, they did get Tyson Chandler, a veteran pick-and-roll finisher who was meant to mentor the likes of Bledsoe and Knight.
And yet, here the Suns are, on the brink of another franchise facelift. Their Kentucky backcourt might be able to work together, but it doesn’t seem like this is the best environment in terms of teammates and coach for them to succeed.
Is it time to sell? If Phoenix’s only goal is to push for a playoff spot this season, then no; the ironic nature of the West this season sees the Suns just 2 games back of the Jazz for the 8th seed at the moment, and perhaps a few months is too small a sample to write off this Suns group as a contender for the 8th seed.
But if Phoenix has higher ambitions than that going forward, then it is time for a new head coach and a freshly revamped roster.
Because the Suns can’t set any lower than this.